IPOs (or why the absence of a pop is not a fizzle)

The big business story of the day is Facebook’s IPO, which is being described in the press as “modest,” a “whimper,” “fall[ing] short,” “sputter[ing],” “underwhelming,” and “a ho-hummer,” to pick a few choice terms. As even most of these articles acknowledge after their doom-and-gloom leads, these descriptions are wrong. The company (and some early shareholders) sold $16+ billion worth of shares to the public and the company is now valued at more than $100 billion. By contrast, the very-successful-in-retrospect Google IPO in 2004 sold about $1.67 billion to the public and valued the company around $27 billion.

The press finds its disappointment in the absence of a “first day pop.” A pop is the difference between the price a company is selling at and the price buyers were will to pay on that same day, so it’s often, rightly, described as “money left on the table.” A pop makes for a more exciting story, but doesn’t directly benefit the company or its shareholders.

Who does benefit? Traditionally, the good clients of the underwriters, who have just been given free money. And, indirectly, the underwriting investment banks, who have earned the goodwill of – one might argue “bribed” – those clients. The historical justification for this underpricing is that IPOs are risky and, to convince customers to invest in them, the price has to be a bit discounted. In particular, the IPOs are supposedly more volatile (riskier) because the price is a guess by the company and its bankers, who survey potential buyers, rather the result of trading in a liquid market.

But this latter condition didn’t really apply in Facebook’s case, thanks to the trading of Facebook shares in secondary markets. While those secondary markets probably overpriced the shares due to limited supply, they established a plausible range. (Late buyers in the secondary markets, who ended up paying a 10-15% premium over the first-day price, do not come off as great stock pickers.) Similarly, the Google IPO dutch auction was intended to set a fair initial price for the market.

Google’s IPO was described in similar disappointing terms to Facebook’s. One would think the press would have learned a lesson by now. (And some have.) But, instead, the absence of a pop becomes a “fizzle” in most of the press.

Is Facebook a successful business? It appears so. Did the company (and early investors and employees) successfully trade previously illiquid shares for cash at a price the market thinks is fair? I think so. Is it worth its current market cap? Time will tell. Will the stock go up or down? Yes.

Update (May 22): On the other hand, if the underwriters had inside information that revenues would be lower than estimates and shared that with some customers but not the general public, that seems wrong. Ethically wrong and legally wrong. Under those circumstances, the IPO would not reflect an honest, fair market valuation; instead, it would be little better than a pump and dump penny stock scam on a grand scale. I expect we’ll hear more in the next few days and I’m withholding judgement until more information is available.

(Disclaimer: This is my personal blog. Comments here reflect my own opinions, not those of my employer. Facebook and my employer compete in some areas; in addition, many of my friends work for Facebook. You can assume I’m very biased here, just in multiple, contradictory ways.)

“Polled” on Net Neutrality

I just participated in a phone poll from some outfit (Western Wats) calling with caller ID saying 801-823-2023. Occasionally, I’ll do these things out of curiosity about what they’re asking, but this one really offended me by how blatantly the questions were directed to a particular result (and how clumsily done that was).

The “poll” was clearly commissioned by carriers opposed to net neutrality. It started with a set of questions to gauge how engaged I was in politics and technology: Do I read news sites online? Do I post comments on blogs? It then moved on to questions about broadband internet policy: Should the government “regulate the internet”? Does Congress have more important things to do than regulate the internet? Should internet service providers ensure “routine internet usage” isn’t disrupted by “large file transfers”? (Is YouTube routine? How about Netflix-via-TiVo? Amazon’s MP3 downloads? Just to name three routine things I’ve done in the past 24 hours…) The last set of questions were looking for agreement with fairly confusing premises, all of which were along the lines that net neutrality would undermine all these good things the internet can do. For example, do I agree that we shouldn’t regulate the internet if/because doing so would prevent empowering the poor to use the internet? (No, I don’t agree.) At the end, parsing the questions, I felt as if I was continually being asked “Have you stopped beating your wife?”

I have no problem with carriers opposed to net neutrality polling to figure out where their message resonates. But this “poll” crossed an ethical line, giving questions with no good answer for people who disagree with their point of view. Perhaps most polling is of this stripe, but I’ve responded to a fair number of phone polls and none of the previous ones was this crass in driving towards a specific result.

The Irrationality of Flexible Spending Accounts

Ezra Klein has a good post up today on the problems of giving employers, but not individuals, a tax exemption on health insurance. This is clearly central to the problems of healthcare financing in the US, but, given how things are, it’s not the sort of policy that can be changed by itself – doing so without another mechanism to pay for insurance would end up making many more people uninsured.

What has always seemed to me to be bad policy, but not so intimately tied to the rest of our economy, is the existence of Flexible Spending Accounts. The gist of an FSA is that an employee of a firm which offers such a plan can set aside a fixed amount of their salary to pay for health care or dependent care; that portion of their salary is tax exempt, but must be used in the space of a little bit more than a year or it is forfeited.

I can’t see any public policy purpose here. Why is the tax exempt status of my medical or child care spending dependent on my employer offering such a plan? Why do I need to play “Let’s Make a Deal” to guess the closest dollar amount without going under to the amount I will spend on health or child care in order to exempt it from taxes? How does setting aside “use it or lose it” money help in any way to reign in health care costs?

I do participate in these plans. For child care, it’s easy to figure out in advance how much we’ll spend in a year on preschool. For health care, we overestimate how much we’ll spend and, towards the end of the year, use the leftover money to pick up a few pairs of glasses, since optometry is covered as medical. (Call me cynical; I’ll take advantage of a tax break even if I think it’s bad policy.)

But who benefits from FSAs versus a policy which says “The first N dollars of health or child care spending per year is tax exempt”? I can see how the companies which offer these plans to employers benefit. I can see how such things benefit optometrists or other providers where people can spend their money before losing it. I can even see how employers benefit, since they receive the money their employees forfeit due to the “use it or lose it” issue, though I don’t think many employers are actively seeking that revenue.

But the benefit to the public? To individual employees of companies offering the plans? To people who don’t have access to such plans? There are much more straightforward, efficient, and fair ways to provide a tax exemption for medical expenses.

Off-balance-sheet entities? Really?

Over my vacation, I read Kurt Eichenwald’s Conspiracy of Fools, which is a wonderfully entertaining, novelistic narrative of Enron’s history and collapse. More on that in future posts, but having just finished that book, I choked when I read this in the New York Times’s hagiographic profile of Henry Paulson from Sunday:

Most notably, he advocated bundling bad loans into off-balance-sheet entities that theoretically would allow banks to improve their financial standing. The plan was a total flop and yet another signal that Mr. Paulson underestimated the severity of the problem.

I’m sorry, but how would that have helped? Isn’t this just an accounting trick? Isn’t the issue that these loans are not being repaid? I can understand the value in writing the loans down, but moving them off balance sheet without writing the loans down just shifts the problem around. Something’s very wrong with the state of accounting if this is what the Treasury Secretary is recommending.

How to Deliver Information

“Tell me what you know, then tell me what you don’t know, and only then can you tell me what you think. Always keep those three separated.”

— Colin Powell to Mike McConnell, summer 1990, as reported in Lawrence Wright, A Reporter at Large: The Spymaster, The New Yorker, January 21, 2008

The article’s well worth reading and quite scary, I thought, both for the incompetence of the “intelligence community” and the frightening steps McConnell wants to take to make it effective, but I loved directness and efficiency of Powell’s advice.

Coulda, woulda, shoulda … but not really

First of all, congrats over to the team at Mint.com for going live and winning the Techcrunch40 prize. As a die hard Quicken user, I think it’s great that companies are pushing in this space. I can’t say I save money or time by using Quicken, but it lets me feel in control. (And I could always tell when I wasn’t feeling in control of my finances, because I would avoid Quicken.) I wish Mint much luck.

But I’m also left with a slightly nostalgic feeling — and even a bit of jealousy — because I tried to create a similar venture back in late 1999. I was coming off of another startup (which I got wistful for when I first heard about Entise Systems and Azul Systems), all my friends were starting web companies, and I thought that what the world needed was a web-version of Quicken. At the time, everyone I talked to thought it was a crazy idea. People wouldn’t trust some web company with access to all their accounts. I was too late and the market was going to be owned by Yodlee or MyCFO. Only obsessives used Quicken and they were already satisfied.

I built a small prototype that could import my Quicken data. And I managed to disable my Bank of America and American Express accounts a few times while building screen scrapers for them. More importantly, though, I learned a few lessons about startups (don’t try to do it as one person — you need moral support and someone to bounce ideas off of) and about myself (I’m good at technology but not at sales). And, after working on it for a few months, I realized I wasn’t actually interested in building and selling the product, only in using it. So, I closed it down and took a job at a startup some friends had founded, which then disappeared with most of the rest of Web 1.0.

I wonder if it’s still a crazy idea. I hope not. Mint, with their scraping and auto-categorization, seems to have done a nice job. I suspect I’m going to hold off on using Mint.com, because this is one kind of data I actually like to have sitting on my hard drive and not out in the cloud. At least for now.

Work is what we do

I read today’s NY Times article on Silicon Valley millionaires who don’t feel rich with a mix of amusement and annoyance. With a few exceptions, it doesn’t feel like the Silicon Valley I know — perhaps it’s just that, when I’m in the valley, I tend to hang out with hard core engineers. I’m astounded by the folks who consented to be interviewed and gave such idiotic-sounding quotes.

There’s one thing that the article does get right, other than the high cost of living in the bay area, which is that it does feel like everyone I know who made money in Silicon Valley credits luck as the first factor in their success. I think that’s right.

But the main thing that I’ve noticed among people who are still working after having made a lot of money is that money does not seem to be the reason they’re working. First, the typical Silicon Valley engineer, regardless of where they’re from, seems to have grown up with a middle class work ethic; absent work, they don’t know what to do. Second, people who work in tech usually have a sense of progress which is very tied to technology; when engineers think about making a contribution to the world, it’s often in terms of new technology — clean energy, a new programming language, organizing the world’s information, etc. Finally, most of us do like our work, at some deep level; how many Silicon Valley engineers do you know who wouldn’t putter around with technology in their spare time?

What in this changes when someone makes money? From what I can see, very little.

And what’s the alternative? Managing one’s estate? I think most engineers don’t want to become full-time financial advisers to themselves. Philanthropy? I’ve heard a lot of admiration of Warren Buffet’s approach, keeping working and giving away money to someone who knows how to give it away well. Playing golf or flying planes? There’s some of that, but it’s hard to get a true sense of accomplishment from most hobbies. I don’t think Silicon Valley should aspire to recreate the English upper classes of the 19th century, which seems to be the vision the Times article had for the wealthy.

As an aside, I know a good number of people who’ve gotten off of the treadmill and are retired. Some are happy, some are not, mostly the same as they were before retiring.

Book of the Day: Perfectly Legal (David Cay Johnston)

Appropriately for tax season, I recently finished reading David Cay Johnston’s Perfectly Legal. The book describes the current state of the U.S. tax system; the description is of a no-longer progressive, mostly flat system which systematically offers loopholes to the richest while hunting for cheaters among the poorest.

Johnston covers taxes for The New York Times. I’ve read Johnston’s articles for years and I had expected the book to have the Times‘s grand, objective style. It doesn’t; it’s an angry, muckraking book about what he rightly sees as an injust transformation. The message of the book, ultimately, is that the tax code is promoting income inequality.

Johnston blames the current situation on the power of the “political donor class,” the rich few who make the bulk of political donations in this country. That’s undoubtedly true, but I think it’s only part of the story. I think that the rise of an anti-tax ideology as the key pillar of the dominant political party in this country — and the attribution of Republican success to the party’s opposition to taxes — has meant that, regardless of how it happened, taxation doesn’t need explicit opposition from the political donor class anymore.

His chapters on the lack of enforcement of the tax code among the rich and the tax-deniers were, I thought, the most interesting and informative. He also goes into great and informative detail Alternative Minimum Tax; the AMT has been discussed a lot, but Johnston makes clear how far from its original purposes it is today.

The book does has flaws. The biggest is probably that it’s very repetitive. On the other hand, for a book on taxes, it’s not in the least dry — this is a book which should make you angry.

The question, of course, is how to do anything about it. As a political donor, it makes me want to give money to candidates who’ll fix the system, even if that runs counter to a narrowly-constructed version of my self-interest. But nobody’s even running on a “collect the taxes we’re owed” or “make the tax system more progressive” ticket — as Johnston points out, people run away from those ideas today. I don’t think the American political mainstream includes the notion that taxes can be done well; ultimately, I don’t think the country can survive that for very long.

How to Blow Five Years of Good Customer Experience in One Easy Step

About five years ago, I bought life insurance for the first time. We’d bought our house in the previous year and our son was about to be born, so it seemed like a prudent thing to do. I shopped around and got a good deal from Western Southern Life on a five-year term policy. For the next five years, they debited $19.50 a month from my checking account and, in case I died, a significant portion of our mortgage would be paid off; I thought we were both happy with this arrangement.

For reasons not related to my satisfaction with the company, I was planning on letting the policy expire. Then, earlier this week, I got a letter from Western Southern saying “The recent change in your Pre-Authorized Check payments will become effective with the next withdrawal from (my bank account).” Hmm, what’s this about? No “Would you like to renew?” note. No “Here are some policy options for you” call. Just “We’re changing your billing.” (Admittedly, we recently moved, and perhaps some mail was lost in the forwarding process? I don’t think that’s been happening, but how do I know for sure?)

But the stupid part is how much they changed: the monthly premium went up to $244.50. (More than twelve-and-a-half times more.) When I called to not-so-politely decline this coverage, I was told that, as I hadn’t called to change my policy, they just put me on one of their “standard rate” policies.

So, this company, which I’d had a good feeling about before, just became a swamp of leaches and con-artists in my mind, luring customers in with good deals and waiting for them not to notice the increased debits. How many people fall for this trick? For how long?

Why would a company that’s trying to build long-time relationships with customers do this? Don’t they see that this gives them a sleazy, fly-by-night reputation? Don’t they see that anyone they do this to will never work with them again?